Not all psychopaths are criminals – some turn out to be 'successful' instead

  • Many psychopaths refrain from antisocial or criminal acts
  • To understand why, researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University carried out a study
  • Their results revealed a key difference between 'successful' and 'unsuccessful' psychopaths

Psychopaths can be alarmingly violent, but, contrary to popular belief, this may only apply to the minority. Instead, many people with the personality disorder refrain from criminal or antisocial acts, and may even go on to become successful in the working field.

A team of researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University in the US wanted to understand what leads to this success. Through their research, they discovered what leads to the formation of this "successful" phenotype. 

Psychopaths in the world

It’s unclear exactly how many psychopaths exist in the world today. Research published in the American Psychological Association journal indicates that, for reasons poorly understood, males demonstrate higher levels of psychopathic traits than females, while the Atlantic reports that psychopaths make up around 1% of the US population.

According to a previous Health24 article, a psychopath is, as defined by internationally renowned psychopathy researcher Robert Hare: "A social predator who often charms and manipulates his or her way through life. Psychopaths are completely lacking in conscience and feelings for others; they take what they want and do as they please without the slightest sense of guilt or regret."

If you’re wondering what makes a psychopath, it may be a “mixture of nature and nurture” in that it could be in one’s DNA, or that one’s upbringing could have an impact on whether you become a psychopath, Business Insider reported

Why the common perception of psychopaths as violent?

There is truth to the notion that psychopathic individuals are more likely than others to commit crimes. However, this does not mean that all psychopaths are criminals.

According to an article published by The Conversation and written by Scott Lilienfeld, a professor of psychology and Ashley Watts, this misconception is largely due to researchers who have tended to seek out psychopaths where they can locate them in large numbers, i.e. prisons. This means that much of the research is focused on "unsuccessful" psychopaths.

In fact, Health24 published an article on the topic last year, noting that there's a growing realisation that many psychopaths thrive in the workplace. 

Ability to ‘inhibit’ impulses

Researchers of the study, which will be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, separated psychotic individuals into two groups: "successful" vs. "unsuccessful". This was based on their life trajectories (the path in life one chooses) and outcomes. 

The successful psychopath, for instance, is a CEO or lawyer, whereas an unsuccessful psychopath, who may possess the same traits, is someone who has been convicted of a crime.

Researchers incorporated a compensatory model of "successful" psychopathy into their study. This model theorises that relatively successful psychopaths develop greater conscientious traits, which ultimately leads to an inhibition of heightened antisocial impulses. 

"The compensatory model posits that people higher in certain psychopathic traits (such as grandiosity and manipulation) are able to compensate for and overcome, to some extent, their antisocial impulses via increases in trait conscientiousness, specifically impulse control," said lead author Emily Lasko, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

Control and aggression

Data from around 1 354 serious juvenile offenders in Arizona and Pennsylvania in the US were collected, and the research team used this to test the model. Among the offenders who re-offended less, termed as the "successful" offenders by the researchers, an especially magnified link between steep increases in general inhibitory control, as well as the inhibition of aggression over time was observed. 

"Psychopathic individuals are very prone to engaging in antisocial behaviours, but what our findings suggest is that some may actually be better able to inhibit these impulses than others," Lasko said, adding: "Although we don't know exactly what precipitates this increase in conscientious impulse control over time, we do know that this does occur for individuals high in certain psychopathy traits who have been relatively more 'successful' than their peers."

How the study's findings may help

The researchers’ results, therefore, support the compensatory model of "successful" psychopathy and run contradictory to other existing psychopathy models, Lasko explained: "Our findings… focus more on the strengths or 'surpluses' associated with psychopathy rather than just deficits. Psychopathy is not a personality trait simply composed of deficits – there are many forms that it can take."

Lasko further explained that the team hopes these findings could be useful within clinical and forensic settings, especially in developing effective and early intervention strategies that could potentially identify the strengths of psychopathic individuals, and ultimately deter any future antisocial behaviour.

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